VIVA KNIEVEL: The ’70s Were Magically Weird (And A Little “Evel,” Too)

Take a moment and think about what a magically weird time the 1970’s were.  For this meditation, use Evel Knievel as your subject. Not only did the ’70s produce an inexplicable cult hero like Knievel, it also gave him both a legit biopic (Evel Knievel, penned by a young John Milius starring George Hamilton as the daredevil) AND his own vanity project, Viva Knievel.

If those facts don’t help you feel the magic of ’70s weirdness then just sit down for a screening of Viva Knievel. It is one of the most mindblowingly off-the-mark spectacles to ever escape from the bowels of Hollywood.

Knievel stars as himself in this odd mix of Hollywood hagiography and exploitation movie. The premise? Evel is going to Mexico to perform a stunt, not knowing that an evil drug kingpin (Leslie Nielsen!) is plotting to have him killed.  The reason is so he can use Evel’s touring vehicle to smuggle a shipment of cocaine back into the states, though that doesn’t really make sense. Meanwhile, Evel spends his time trying to reunite his grizzled alkie mechanic (Gene Kelly!) with the man’s long-lost son (Eric Olson) and also works on winning over a catty female journalist (Lauren Hutton) who demands to be referred to as a ‘Ms.’

Viva Knievel is a wacked-out gem from start to finish. The script, co-penned by Dirty Mary Crazy Larry screenwriter Antonio Santean,  is a chaotic jumble of nonsensical plotting and howler-riddled dialogue.  In the space of 106 minutes, it slops together family-oriented ‘message’ entertainment (Evel lectures on the evils of drugs), exploitation thrills (a great scene where Kelly is doped up by the villains and sent to a mental asylum run by Dabney Coleman!), a bit of mondo movie (real footage of a Knievel wipeout) and scenes of shameless tear-jerking schlock drama.

For an example of the latter, consider the opening scene – Knievel sneaks into an orphanage to hand out toys (Evel Knievel toys, natch) to the kids. This inspires one handicapped kid to throw down his crutches, stagger over to our hero and say “You’re the reason I’m walking, Evel!” Director Gordon Douglas helms such moments in a deadpan, straightforward style that only enhances their mind-altering surrealism.

Viva Knievel has also got one helluva cast – in addition to the aforementioned stars, you get Cameron Mitchell, Albert Salmi, Red Buttons, Frank Gifford and an amusing turn by Marjoe Gortner as Evel’s protege-turned-embittered-rival. None of this Irwin Allen-worthy cast manages to rise above the ineptly crafted material – Kelly in particular is saddled with a rather embarrassing and maudlin role – but they give it their all.

And, most importantly, there is Evel himself. His performance ain’t what you would call nuanced but his determination and sheer belief in himself is guaranteed to win over the schlock fans. His anti-drug speech, which uses the subject of nitro fuel as a metaphor for drug abuse and the rhetorical hook “blow all to hell,” is one of the great bad movie moments.

In short, Viva Knievel is crazy, terminally misguided and altogether wonderful in its own hokey way. It’s the weird magic of the ’70s distilled into its purest form. Drink deeply and get “blown all to hell.”


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